“Louie is pretty much just making movies this season, huh?” asked our esteemed TV editor, Pilot Viruet, and she’s right; after Louie’s third season concluded with the three-part “Late Show” arc, season four has included the six-part “Elevator” episode, the (still in progress) three-part “Pamela” episodes, and last night’s “In the Woods,” a 90-minute episode—66 minutes without commercials—that houses an extended flashback to Louie’s childhood (or, more specifically, the moment when that childhood ended). But “In the Woods” attempts something those previous multi-part episodes and his feature films (Tomorrow Night and Pootie Tang) didn’t: it’s basically a drama. He doesn’t quite pull it off.
The set-up is certainly compelling: Louie and Todd, the old guys at an outdoor concert, are people-watching when Louie muses, “Some of these kids are Lily’s age.” And one of them, wouldn’t ya know it, is Lily, whom Louie spots with a joint in her hand, a moment so unfortunate for both of them that it almost seems to be leading to a moment of fantasized mistaken identity. But no such luck for Lily; she’s busted, and when Louie tries to warn her off, she replies, “What do you know about it?” With that, we cut to our young hero and his mother (the great Amy Landecker, making a welcome return) in the car, and immediately there is a palpable shift; the music is not the customary zazzy jazz or sad blues, but an evocative, nostalgic tune, as we join Louie at the end of his junior high years.
These early scenes are a lot of fun, as we witness painfully awkward young Louie (well played by Devin Druid) not actually asking a girl to a dance, prepping for said dance in a room decorated with (of course) posters of Bruce Lee and Farrah Fawcett, and wandering aimlessly in the school gym (yep, those dances all pretty much felt like that). And then his buddy Brad shows up with a joint, promising, “We’re gonna get high on pot!”
“In the Woods” certainly doesn’t suffer for lack of earnestness; it feels like one of the most nakedly autobiographical episodes of the show to date. But for once, candor isn’t quite enough. It’s a strangely serious (even after the seriocomic drama of “Elevator”) hour-plus, and sadly, Louie isn’t quite up to the challenge of tackling full-on drama, particularly one as wrought with the possibility of cliché as the coming-of-age drug story. It just plain lacks punch, and this story has been told so many times that it’s hard not to see every development coming.
Which is not to say that there aren’t bits and pieces that work, some of them beautifully. The editing is masterful, with several inspired moments of intercutting: the ransacking of the school supply closet with his mom taking apart his room, of the two of them after their big argument, and (in a larger sense) of the past and the present throughout the episode. F. Murray Abraham turns up briefly and effectively, playing (by my count) his third different character on the show. And the showcase performance is that of Louie’s American Hustle co-star, Jeremy Renner, as a dirtbag small-time drug dealer, whose tender care for his cat (“You gotta have your drops, you understand me? You wanna go blind?”) is brilliantly juxtaposed with his genuine menace as he pins Louie to the wall (“What do you think, because you’re a kid, I’m not gonna hurt you?”). It’s an electrifying performance.
Yet it somehow doesn’t add up. Performances are problematic; to give one example, the actor who plays the school principal is genuine but clunky, reciting lines in an amateurish manner that’s well below the series’ usual standards. The show takes so long to get to that conversation between Louie and Lily, and teases it so tantalizingly, that it feels oddly rushed by the time they get there. And young Louie’s confrontation with his mom has some moments of real power—“Y’know what, Louie? I don’t like you” leaps to mind—but the story has become so pat and predictable by then that she really has to fight her way out of the scene.
Still, all of those complaints registered, this much must be said: “In the Woods” is an ambitious and heartfelt piece of work, and Louie trying new things and not quite succeeding is still more interesting than just about anything else on television.